This is the sixth in a series of articles on the dignity and vocation of women, published in celebration of the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem. Read Part I here, Part II here, Part III here, Part IV here, and Part V here.
In order to understand the dignity and vocation of women, we must seek a deeper understanding of the truth about the human person. Sadly, we live in a culture that has all but robbed us of our ability to know who we are; and yet, the human heart remains searching for this Truth.
In Mulieris Dignitatem, Blessed John Paul II’s apostolic letter On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, we are gifted with a beautiful reflection on God’s truth about who we are.
It is all too easy to get depressed about today’s societal ills, but if we were to give in to the temptation to think we can’t do anything about it, we would be sorely misled. True, we may not be able to “solve” all the problems that cry out to us in agony. But there is an answer. That answer is Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He has much to teach us about the dignity and vocation of women, and if we pay heed to it, the culture can indeed be transformed.
In my daily work of dealing with the critical issues surrounding the sacredness of life and of marriage, I regularly see the deep wounds caused by the insidious lies and false promises of the culture of death. These afflictions particularly strike at the heart of the woman. Sometimes the wounds are more obvious, but other times they are invisible. There are the classic examples of the painful experiences of women suffering from the trauma of a past abortion, and abandoned women struggling alone to be good single mothers. It is also spiritually troubling to contemplate the moral pain and brokenness of those who have subjected themselves to the disordered existence of a culture that doesn’t see what’s wrong with pre-marital sex, cohabitation, and contraception. And yet, what grave dangers lurk there to both body and soul!
Too many women are wounded by aimlessly “looking for love in all the wrong places”. When we buy into the lies of the culture, our very dignity as human persons made in the image and likeness of God is diminished, and even obscured from our own view. But Christ restores us to the truth about our dignity. Pope John Paul II notes, “… [it is] in the person and mission of Jesus Christ, in which we also recognize what the reality of the Redemption means for the dignity and vocation of women.”
Women in Scripture
Jesus encounters many women in the Gospels. Pope John Paul II’s insightful reflections, particularly on how Jesus dealt with women involved in sins related to sexuality, namely the accounts of the Samaritan woman at the well; the “public sinner” who enters the house of the Pharisee to anoint the feet of Jesus; and the woman caught in adultery, are particularly profound. Jesus’ words and works always express the respect and honor due to women (Mulieris Dignitatem, 13). The Holy Father points out:
These episodes provide a very clear picture. Christ is the one who “knows what is in man” – in man and woman. He knows the dignity of man, his worth in God’s eyes. He Himself, the Christ, is the definitive confirmation of this worth. Everything He says and does is definitively fulfilled in the Paschal Mystery of the Redemption. Jesus’ attitude to the women whom He meets in the course of His Messianic service reflects the eternal plan of God, who, in creating each one of them, chooses her and loves her in Christ. Each woman therefore is “the only creature on earth which God willed for its own sake”. Each of them from the ‘beginning’ inherits as a woman the dignity of personhood. Jesus of Nazareth confirms this dignity, recalls it, renews it, and makes it a part of the Gospel and of the Redemption for which He is sent into the world. Every word and gesture of Christ about women must therefore be brought into the dimension of the Paschal Mystery. In this way everything is completely explained. (Ibid, 13)
Applying the Gospel stories to the situations so prevalent today, Pope John Paul says, “Jesus enters into the concrete and historical situation of women, a situation which is weighed down by the inheritance of sin”, the sin of both men and women. In the story of the woman caught in adultery, while Jesus says, “Go and sin no more” to the woman, He also “evokes an awareness of sin in the men who accuse her in order to stone her, thereby revealing His profound capacity to see human consciences and actions in their true light.” He goes on to explain how similar situations are repeated throughout history, analogizing with how often women are left alone, abandoned in their pregnancy, when the child’s father is unwilling to accept responsibility for him or her. He says, “And besides the many unwed mothers in our society, we also must consider all those who, as a result of various pressures, even on the part of the guilty may, very often ‘get rid of’ the child before it is born…but at what price? Public opinion today tries in various ways to ‘abolish’ the evil of this sin. Normally a woman’s conscience does not let her forget that she has taken the life of her own child, for she cannot destroy that readiness to accept life which marks her ‘ethos’ from the ‘beginning’.” (Ibid, 14)
Coming home to God’s embrace
What single woman doesn’t wish she had a loving husband to help her raise her child? What woman who resorted to the despair of abortion doesn’t have a day go by where she wonders what might have been? How can such painful situations be remedied?
The broken woman’s receptivity to Jesus’ words of truth, love, and mercy begins the healing process. Once she has made the decision to give back to Him the life He gives to her, no matter the wounds the distortion of sin may have caused in her life, the road back opens in a shower of light. This was true for the women who encountered Christ in the Scriptures, and it is true for women of today. Restoration can be a painful process. Sometimes the work goes smoothly. Other days, things go wrong and there are setbacks. But perseverance always bears good fruit. And even though it may be hard work, and at times a struggle, it is never as painful as the rupture was, if approached with faith and trust. Again, as the Scriptures bear witness, those who are forgiven much, love much, and a deeply-lived discipleship begins.
The Church today continues to heed the call to heal wounds and restore dignity. Through the loving work of pregnancy centers that assist unwed mothers, and through the Church’s ministry of Project Rachel, which offers healing and reconciliation to those who have been wounded by abortion, we find examples of the extension of Christ’s mission of mercy.
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Blessed John Paul II also addresses the heart and dignity of women in his landmark encyclical Evangelium Vitae. While the often quoted and poignant paragraph 99 is addressed to women who have had an abortion, it can easily be applied to the many kinds of wounds that women in today’s culture face:
Do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation….With the friendly and expert help and advice of other people, and as a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone’s right to life. Through your commitment to life, whether by accepting the birth of other children or by welcoming and caring for those most in need of someone to be close to them, you will become promoters of a new way of looking at human life. (EV, 99)
Here he not only paves the way for the path of healing, but shows us how to come home to God’s mercy and to become true disciples of the Risen Christ.
The dignity and vocation of women involves a truly sacred mission. May every woman learn to embrace this gift and mystery.